What better way to mark Town Meeting Day than to discuss a case involving speech, harangue, and oration?
In April 2015, five people were arrested after staging a coordinated protest during an argument before the United States Supreme Court. They were charged with two crimes, including “making a harangue or oration” before the Court in violation of 40 U.S.C. 6134. A federal district judge dismissed the charge after concluding that the words “harangue” and “oration” were unconstitutionally vague.
On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed. In an opinion issued last Friday, a 3-judge panel held that the statute is not vague, noting “[t]hat ‘harangue’ and ‘oration’ may not roll off the average person’s tongue today does not alter their possession of a settled meaning around public speeches.” Opinion, at 11.
Now, the case had nothing to do with legal ethics. However, as many of you are aware, I’ve been known to use pop culture references to deliver lessons in legal ethics. The references have served as valuable & entertaining props in the effort to spice up an otherwise dry area of the law. Today, I’m pleased to report that a federal circuit court of appeals understands the value of pop culture references..
In the penultimate paragraph – the crescendo, if you will, of its opinion – the D..C. Circuit panel wrote:
- “Turning to the facts here, a person of ordinary intelligence could read this law and understand that, as a member of the Supreme Court’s oral argument audience, making disruptive public speeches is clearly proscribed behavior—even in staccato bursts, seriatim. And yet, in a coordinated fashion, each Appellee is alleged to have directed a variation of the same message to the Justices of the Supreme Court and the assembled audience. Their coordinated standing, facing the bench, and messaging indicate the Appellees were addressing the Court and gallery. Cf. MY COUSIN VINNY (20th Century Fox 1992) (Judge Chamberlain Haller: ‘Don’t talk to me sitting in that chair! . . . When you’re addressing this court, you’ll rise and speak to me in a clear, intelligible voice.’). Viewed objectively, these alleged acts could easily be considered speeches to a public assembly that tended to disrupt the Court’s operations—conduct covered by § 6134’s prohibition of ‘make a harangue or oration.'” Opinion, at 16 (emphasis added).
I look forward to more and more courts embracing the movement.
Speaking of pop culture references, call it irony, fate, kismet or whatever . . . but check out the last name of the attorney who argued the appeal for the defendants. That’s right: Kramer.
P.S. – don’t send me an email telling me that the picure isn’t Kramer. I know it isn’t. It’s of Fred Gwynne as Judge Haller in My Cousin Vinnny.